Kurt Vonnegut Talks to Studs Terkel About Death, Vengeance, and Forgiveness
A writer. Among his more celebrated works is Slaughterhouse-Five, a novel inspired by his experience as an American POW in Dresden, during the Allied bombings. His most recent sardonic work is God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian. He is honorary president of the American Humanist Association.
MY FIRST AMERICAN ancestors had been born Catholics in the north of Europe, around Munster, Germany. Vonnegut is not a noble name. There’s a stream right outside of Munster which is about the size of a table, about three and a half feet wide. It’s called the Vonne, the stream. And “gut” is a piece of property.
My ancestors, educated people, came over before the Civil War. One on my mother’s side of the family lost a leg—I forget what battle. They settled in the Middle West, founding cities like Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and they forgot all about Europe. They didn’t forget about the music, and they didn’t forget about the poetry, and they didn’t forget about the language, but they really lost all interest in German politics.
My ancestors settled in Indianapolis. My paternal great-grandfather arrived with some money, looking for a business to buy. He bought a brewery. These were well-heeled opportunists, educated opportunists, as compared with Irish immigrants or Italian immigrants. They arrived here before there was an Ellis Island, before there was a Statue of Liberty. They were here to settle down and become American nobility.
My grandfather, Bernard Vonnegut, was born in Indianapolis. His father, Clemens Vonnegut, the immigrant, had founded a successful hardware store. He was selling rifles and axes and all that. He had three brothers. They all loved the business, they were making a lot of money, but Bernard was so unhappy. He wanted to be an artist. They hardly knew what the hell that was. Apparently they had never had one in the family before. They talked to a guy who knew something about art. He did the lettering on tombstones, and he was also a sculptor. He said, “This boy has to go to Europe.” So by God, his family sent him. [Laughs] He had a hell of a good time. So they told him to come home.
He was stagestruck—theater. He wanted to design sets, but there is no such trade that anybody gets paid for. So he went to MIT instead and took a master’s degree in architecture. Then he went to New York and founded a club of young architects, meeting at the Salmagundi Club. His family said: “Enough is enough! You’re having too much fun—come home, get married…” So he did. He became the first licensed architect in Indiana. As for religion, my family were rational people, and they decided the priest didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. What really shook them was Darwin. That sounded exactly right to them, and it put the Bible out of business. To them, this country did have religious documents: the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. They had no expectation of an afterlife. They were freethinkers. The Germans were so hated in the First World War, never mind the Second World War, that the freethinkers simply disappeared. They became Unitarians.
My father was partner with his father, my grandfather in Indianapolis. He was an architect who became my grandfather’s partner. A lot of buildings in Indianapolis were done by one or the other. But Father was a businessman, and so he had to join Kiwanis, because the people pass around business in Kiwanis—insurance and architecture and law and whatever. But he also had to have a religion, because nobody wants to deal with a guy who isn’t anything, has no religion, which means he’s just a wild man. So Father said he was a Unitarian. That was OK. He and his father designed the Unitarian Church out there in Indianapolis. You had to be something.
What the freethinkers were are now called humanists. I am one. A humanist believes, because of Darwin, whose truths were so shocking, in making the most use of good science as possible. Humanists behave well without any expectation of either reward or punishment in an afterlife. We serve, as best we can, our community. When I was growing up, nobody ever said anything about Heaven, about an afterlife. They said that this life was enough.
I have experienced what happens when I die, and so have you. We call it sleep. We had a fire in our apartment in New York last February. I was unconscious for three days, in a coma, and I had a near-death experience. I had already written God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian at that time, and I was talking about the blue tunnel into the afterlife. People who are interviewed on TV every so often tell about their near-death experiences. Some talked about the blue tunnel and it seemed like a good, funny idea to me. It’s not a blue tunnel, it’s a railroad train—probably because railroad trains used to play such a big part in our lives. When I left Indianapolis to go to the University of Chicago, I got on a train to Chicago. When I came home from the army, from the war, it was on a railroad train—so they’re very important symbols. It was parked near the hospital. I could see it. There was a railroad siding. It was just a regular passenger train with a diner and all that. There didn’t seem to be any people in it, but it was all lit up inside. I knew that if I died, I’d be put on a gurney, I wouldn’t have to walk to the train. Off I’d go. It wasn’t a terrifying image at all.
I wish I’d died on D-day, it would have saved a lot of trouble … [Laughs]
If you’d died, we wouldn’t have had Slaughterhouse-Five, we wouldn’t have had…
You would have had so many good books. [Laughs]
My parents certainly relieved me of all terror of death just by their own attitudes. They never made death seem a threatening thing at all. And, you know, I look at the Sistine Chapel, with people going to Hell and all that, I have to wonder, could a man as intelligent as Michelangelo believe this? [Laughs, wheezes] It’s hard for me to give credence to that. But as a humanist, I’ve never tried to talk anybody out of religion. We don’t proselytize at all. My particular war buddy, who’s dead now, is a guy I put in a couple of stories in the book, Bernard V. O’Hare. When you’re in the army, in the infantry, you’re essentially married to somebody else, you look out for each other, you pair off—particularly prisoners of war. O’Hare was a Roman Catholic, but when the war was over O’Hare gave up on Catholicism. We parted company in Newport News, where the troopship finally put us to shore. He said he was through with God and with Catholicism. I didn’t think the war was that bad, and I knew that Catholicism was a very nourishing, helpful thing. And honorable. I was very sorry to have him take the war that hard. He lost something I’d never had. God is a shorthand for everything. Like tout le there’s the whole universe. What I’ve said about humanists is that we sure as hell know something very important is going on—we just don’t know what it is.
Einstein’s E = mc2 is an extraordinary concept. So radical: matter and energy are two phases of the same sort of general stuff. There’s only one other idea that radical: Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
The whole idea of revenge was so reputable that Hammurabi, a great leader somewhere in the Middle East, wrote the Code of Hammurabi: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Somebody pointed out this was in fact a peaceful proposal. He wasn’t recommending that somebody take an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth. He was saying, “Take that much and no more.” [Laughs] But then came this radical idea: If you are injured, don’t avenge yourself. What kind of a person is that who doesn’t seek revenge? E = mc2, try this: Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. The Lord’s Prayer, of course.
You were a prisoner of war, and you were in the cellar there in Dresden, being bombed by the Allies. Weren’t you scared?
There’s no point in being scared—you’re just asking what kind of animal is a human being? You just sit there with hands over your head to avoid the plaster falling. And try not to start crying or yelling or anything. The reason we didn’t suffocate is the slaughterhouse was full of open areas for penning the animals. So there wasn’t that much combustible there.
About five years ago I got a letter from a woman who said she was about to have a baby and did I think it was a terrible thing to bring such a sweet, innocent animal into a world this terrible. So I replied that what made being alive almost worthwhile for me was saints I met—people who behave decently in an indecent society. They’re all over the place. I ran into them in the army, and I ran into one just today. Think about the saints you meet in the course of an ordinary day. And then I tell people, “Perhaps some of you will be saints for this woman’s child to meet.”
You know what Sartre said? “Hell is other people.” It’s a threat. I have said that inconvenience is other people, and inconvenience can be Hell. People are in the way all the time. That’s Hell enough. Andrew Lloyd Webber set new music to a requiem that came out of the Council of Trent in 1500, something like that. The Reformation had begun, and the Catholic Church was really quite pissed off. This requiem came out. It was at St. Thomas Church—this is on Fifth Avenue in New York; it has its own boy’s choir. It was by invitation only. I had to wear a tuxedo, my wife had to wear an evening gown. We were lucky enough to be invited. We sat there and heard these boys singing in Latin. These lovely high voices, boys whose voices hadn’t changed. They were looking up at Heaven and loving God so much and everything. I happened to look at the English translation of what they were singing. Terrible things were going to happen to people after they died. [Laughs] One line was, “Even the innocent may be punished.” People were going to be fed to lions and thrown into lion pits and all that after they were dead. And the sheep were going to be separated from the goats. It was a horrible, sadistic document and there was no reason to love God at all. So I went home and that night wrote a new requiem, a secular requiem. In it I said there will be a moment of great hilarity when people find out that nobody’s going to be punished. There are people who want a whole lot of people punished and then they get to Heaven and there aren’t going to be any punishments. [Laughs]
What about a guy like Hitler?
In one of my books, I wrote about Hitler’s last words. As he’s down there in the bunker and the Russians are right up above him, and if they catch him they’re going to put him in a cage and show him around and humiliate him, piss on him. So he’s definitely gonna have to kill himself. The whole question is what his last words should be. There are other witnesses to hear his last words. Goebbels is there, and Martin Bormann, to hear what this great man’s last words are. And Hitler says, “I regret nothing.” Goebbels points out to him that this is in fact a song by Edith Piaf. People are going to see the similarity. She was called “the little sparrow.” His last words are going to be the same thing the little sparrow says. Finally he says, “I never asked to be born in the first place.” And he blows his brains out. What are you gonna do? You know what the punishment was for counterfeiting in the time of Henry VIII? Being boiled in public. [Laughs] That was how much they didn’t want anybody to mess with the currency. [Laughs]
The fact that forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us isn’t honored more—I blame that on writers. Because the easy story to tell is the vengeance story, and it’s known to satisfy. This guy shot my brother. How’s the story gonna wind up? And what does a reader think? OK, that’s settled. So it’s just the easiest of all stories to tell. So it in fact encourages, makes reputable vengeance.
What about physician-assisted suicide? Your view of Kevorkian is, of course, an affirmative one.
Yes, because I think that’s good medicine too. There’s no murders prevented by our keeping doctors from putting people out of their misery. My mother committed suicide right before I went overseas. She was so unhappy she thought it was time.
Has the thought ever occurred to you?
Of course. I have attempted it. One of the legacies is that suicide is a way to solve problems. In one of my books I said, if Farmer A can harvest seven pecks of potatoes an hour, and he’s joined by Farmer B, who can harvest three pecks of potatoes an hour, and there are one thousand potatoes to every square acre, how long will it take Farmer A and Farmer B, working together, to harvest five acres? My answer is: I think I’ll blow my brains out. [Laughter]
I’ve told my lawyer and I’ve told my oldest son what I wanted for a funeral service. It’s not to be in any holy place, it’s not to take place in New York City. I don’t want a Viking funeral where they put a guy on a boat with treasure and set it on fire. I want it to be on Cape Cod, where I raised my family, and I want to be cremated and my ashes scattered over Barnstable Harbor.
I’ve seen grand funeral services in New York City, even with videos and famous people speaking and all that. If I’m to be remembered, the work’s all been done, that’s the final ceremony. [Laughs] I just want a farewell. In Slaughterhouse-Five, every time somebody dies, and when a botde of champagne loses its bubbles and is dead, I always say, “So it goes”—that’s all. Whenever anybody has died—and this would be my sister, my brother, my father, my mother, and I was nearby for those events—that’s how I felt… That was that… I had nobody to appeal to, to get mad at. [Laughs] When somebody dies, it’s wholly unsurprising and so it goes. What could be more ordinary?
This excerpt originally appeared in Studs Terkel’s book, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith” and is reprinted with permission from The New Press.